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What Do You Do When You See Bad Parenting?

What Do You Do When You See Bad Parenting?

By Chris Jordan

If we are going to be honest, at some point in our parenting career we will treat our children in a way we come to regret. Sometimes immediately. Sometimes well after the fact. There is not one of us who hasn’t wished at one time or another that they could have a do-over.

I have not seen the television program, What Would You Do?, but Lisa Belkin wrote about the show on her NYT Motherlode blog. The premise of the show is to see if people intervene in situations. This show in particular had a mother yelling at her child for getting an A-. It is important to note that both the mother and child were played by Asian actresses, preying on the Tiger Mom stereotype.

Would people say something to the mother about her behavior? Turns out they did.

This surprises me. I rarely see people intervene.

*****

I am sitting on the bleachers watching 5 and 6 year old boys practice t-ball. There is one father, also one of the coaches, who is always yelling at his son. Screaming. He storms across the field any time his son does anything that isn’t perfect. Other parents and I comment daily about how tough he is on his kid.

Yesterday I looked up from texting, because let’s face it t-ball practice isn’t exactly riveting, to see the kid running laps around the field after he had missed a catch. After the first lap I see the father say something to the kid. He is now doing bear crawls around the field, pausing every so often to do push-ups.

All of us watching agree that this father’s behavior is over the top. We all agree that it is inappropriate at best and abuse at worst.

Yet, none of us say anything to him.

It’s not our business, is it?

*****

I am in the grocery store. A mother gets in line behind me pushing one of those unwieldy carts with the separate seating area in front of the cart. I can tell she is frazzled. The child is probably about 3 years old, whining, crying, kicking her feet. I feel for the mother. I have been there. Any of us who have children have been there. I try to smile at the mother, to let her know I am not judging her, but she doesn’t make eye contact. Suddenly she snatches the child by her hair and yells in her face.

I am sure that my shock shows on my face, but I say nothing to the mother.

What could I say, really, that would make any sort of difference. This is but a tiny snippet of her day.

It’s none of my business, is it?

*****

Both of these events have been in the forefront of my mind this week. I go over the events in my mind, each time trying to decide what I should have done differently. Where would have been the right place to intervene, to say something. And what should I have said?

I think the first situation is the one that weighs on me the most, because I see it on an almost daily basis. I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anything I said would be welcomed, because, let’s face it, how many of us like to have our parenting critiqued. And yet sitting idly by seems equally as wrong.

What he is doing to his son seems abusive to me, and to some of the other parents, yet I think it is in a sort of gray area. Most people would think the father’s behavior was over the top, and certainly not kind, but when you mention the word abusive people tend to shrug their shoulders.

It’s not our business.
Don’t interfere.
Don’t make any waves.

These are the things that we say to ourselves when we don’t intervene, right? And usually it has nothing to do with the situation we witness but our own insecurities. We don’t want someone to be angry with us.

*****

I end up confronting the father of the child on my son’s baseball team. Several months of this behavior made it seem to me that it was a pattern, not an isolated incident born out of frustration or weariness. Maybe that it where the line lies between making something our business or giving the benefit of the doubt. The line between being the perpetrator of a parenting drive-by or having enough knowledge of the situation to truly judge.

I thought I was being very specific. I thought I tempered my words. I spoke only about the single incident that troubled me. He did not take it well and instead decided to take my words as an indictment of his over all parenting skills. To say he was angry would be an understatement.

I felt nauseous from the level of animosity I felt coming at me. Not one  other parent stood with me.

I begin to let my own insecurities think that maybe it really was none of my business.

*****

I am in the grocery store at the witching hour. That is what I call the time of day when the children are tired, cranky, unreasonable and probably hungry. I knew it was a bad idea to try and do a quick stop with my six and seven year olds, but I really had no other choice. They have whined and bickered throughout the store. Standing in the check out line has exacerbated their bad behavior. Suddenly one child kicks the other. There is shoving. There is crying. I have reached the end of my rope. Each have clutched in their hand a candy that was promised to them if they behaved in the store. I reach out and snatch the candy. Roughly. My temper is short and I speak unkindly. I am not at all sympathetic to them. There are tears.

I make eye contact with the woman who has gotten in line behind me at some point.

Wow, you are tough.

I can’t tell if her words are those of admiration or judgment. I assume the latter. Why?

My face burns. Not with shame or embarrassment, though I feel those too, but with anger at this woman. Who is she to judge me? She knows nothing about me. She knows nothing about my parenting. She doesn’t know that most people consider me to be almost saint-like with the level of patience I (usually) have with my children. I think even Mother Theresa would have drop kicked my two kids out of the store on this particular day.

My anger toward the woman behind me in line surprises me.

I have found in the course of my life that when my anger flairs up so hotly, there is a nugget of truth that I need to examine further. In this case I didn’t have to do any soul excavation, I knew why I was angry. Instead of choosing compassion for my children, I took my own frustrations out on them. Not by taking the candy away, though in retrospect given the time of day and their level of crankiness I was setting them up for failure, but by snatching the candy away from them and behaving in a way that I would never tolerate coming from them.

I realized that I was angry at this woman for holding up the mirror in which I saw myself.

*****

I still see the father a few times a week, since our kids play on the same team. I didn’t regret what I said. I think it needed to be said by someone. At the time I was just wishing I didn’t have to be the one to say it.

In the weeks that have followed I have not witnessed him treating his son in any way that would be considered abusive. His whole demeanor on the field has changed. There isn’t any physical punishments nor has there been any inappropriate screaming.  There has been a lot more encouragement and positive reinforcement.

Maybe he just needed someone to hold up the mirror.

Chris Jordan
About the Author

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children. Yes, they...

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she wrote about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.
Yes, they are all hers.
No she’s not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.
Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That’s why her youngest is a teen now.
Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

 

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Dawn
Guest
Dawn

You already know you did the right thing – by speaking calmly and only addressing the specific behavior you witnessed – but I still have to say you are awesome for doing so because it is very hard to confront another person in that manner. You may truly have helped both father and son by what you did. And all the other people who did not step in may have felt that you were handling it well and that jumping in would have exacerbated the situation even further considering the reaction you go from the father. This is just such… Read more »

Erin
Guest

Love the thoughtfulness of this piece. The answer to this question IS complicated. It brought to mind an NPR (TOTN) piece I recently heard about people who do things that are “out of character.” A man called in to tell a story about a time he tried to return a defective product to the store and when he was told he couldn’t, he became so enraged he threatened a salesperson’s life. What was really going on was that his wife was dying of ALS and he was angry about losing his best friend…. And so… you do never know what’s… Read more »

sonja lange
Guest
sonja lange

you should be very proud of yourself – I HATE confrontation and have walked away many times when I should have said something about the way things were handled – sports can bring out the worst in a parent, when we know what the kids CAN do and they DON’T do – it gets frustrating…but they know what they can do and are probably already being hard on themselves without us adding to it…good job mama!

Amber Gordon
Guest
Amber Gordon

I have a tendency not to interfere. Parenting is so ‘each to your own’ and even in my own family I get judged on one side for being too ‘lax’ judged on the other side for too ‘paranoid’ yes god forbid I don’t want people teaching my kids rascist words and having them in car seats. I have also been you with the candy (you can’t tell me a parent has NEVER lost their temper with their child in some way. They would be lying.) I was also texting at a playground once and my kid tripped and smacked his… Read more »

Tracy
Guest

I’m all for standing up for the children we see treated unkindly. The problem is, if the adult who’s care they are in is already upset, hearing criticism about their behavior can cause their anger to escalate. I fear they will then take it out on the child even more. When I see something I’m uncomfortable with, I try to align myself with the parent. Making a comment like “Man, it’s exhausting shopping with grumpy kids, isn’t it?” gives the adult a chance to feel understood and calm down a bit. And a chance to, hopefully, modify their attitude. It… Read more »

Mama B
Guest

I was in a similar situation recently except I was the one being too tough. It was at my mother in laws house and I dragged my son out of the room all the kids were in (on his sisters birthday) and shouted at him for pushing her out of the way to get to the cake. I was at the end of my tether and my reaction was inappropriate at best. My sister in law saw me do this, I hadn’t realized till after. I just smiled and muttered something about being stressed. The part that killed me was… Read more »

Heather
Guest

We all need a mirror sometimes.

susannah
Guest
susannah

I watched in horror as a young mom, with an 18 month old son, yelled at him and then hit him because he did not get into the car fast enough. then when he started crying because of being hit and yelled at, she hit him some more.  then she slammed the door shut and drove away.  I was frozen, not knowing what to do.  If I intervened, then would it help? would she just scream and hit the child more. what is with her life that she can be so awful to a child who was too small to… Read more »

child advocate
Guest
child advocate

I saw something very similar. Yes, there is something you can do, take license plate down, get as much description of what parent is doing, location, date and time. Hitting a child is something reportable. Call your local CPS and even law enforcement. I did and there was immediate follow up, come to find out the mother I reported had a case open and there was follow up in place. Don’t worry about breaking a family apart, first there is an investigation and proper follow is done according to recommendation.

Jenni
Guest
Jenni

Great post! I admire you for saying something to that father and I bet that deep down that father admires you for having the balls. And can you imagine how his son feels about you? That. Jordan Mom. Rocks.

A
Guest
A

My mother was like that boy’s father.  Unspeakably abusive, even in front of other people. I often felt humiliated and deeply ashamed.  In retrospect (and because people tell you things as an adult they didn’t want to say when you were a kid) everyone knew she was abusive.  And no one said or did anything.  For YEARS (and thousands of dollars in therapy) I wondered why. My mother would have reacted the same as that father – she wouldn’t have taken it nicely. But having someone call her out on that behavior would have given her pause before doing the… Read more »

Nicola
Guest
Nicola

That was a very well written aricle. It is so very hard to know what to do in these difficult situations, in part, because we have all been that awful parent (even just for a moment!) You were tremendously brave to confront that father and I just hope that I would have been the kind of person that would have backed you up.

Lucinda
Guest
Lucinda

Saying something can be so hard.  Like a commenter above said, when I see something in a store, I usually express sympathy because I HAVE been there where I was pushed to my very limit.  One time a child threw up in a store and the mother just yelled at her.  I immediately offered to help clean up the mess and explained that I knew how hard that could be.  She didn’t seem to appreciate it and later I saw her yelling at her other child but I knew I had tried to show kindness, even if it didn’t help.… Read more »

Brittany
Guest
Brittany

Loved this 🙂

Jenn
Guest

I have been having a similar dilemma for months. A mother brings her son to the preschool my daughter attends every week without strapping him into a car seat. At drop off time every week I see them pull up, him climb out of the front seat without undoing a seatbelt even. I don’t want to say anything because it’s really none of my business but at the same time I know that if something were to ever happen I would just hate myself. Preschool ends in four weeks…still not sure if I’m going to say anything. ********** Isabel: Jenn,… Read more »

Ruth H
Guest
Ruth H

I do not see the abusive behavior as much in stores as I did back when my children were young. I do believe education has helped. I spoke up on two occasions at that time, I do not know if helped or not. I like to think it did. On one of the occasions a mother pulled her child by the ear while yelling abuse. I could NOT have spoken up at that, it was way over the top. I shamed her and I did it purposely. She was going to damage the poor kids hearing if not his mental… Read more »

Nicki
Guest
Nicki

I went through something identical with a very abusive mom of a 4 year old gymnast on my daughter’s pre-team. For me, I waited 4 months to say anything and only spoke up when backed by another mom. In this case it totally back-fired. she only increased her level of awful abuse toward her daughter (literally in between justifying her parenting and defending herself) and now there is so much added tension and negativity twice a week that I’m almost sick with anxiety and stress when I have to go into the gym. I didn’t think it could get worse… Read more »

Jen
Guest

I think you did the right thing. As hard as it is, we all need to stand up for children who cannot stand up for themselves. By not attacking the coaches parenting as a whole and focusing on the single event you took some of the sting out of it. Also by focusing on one event it may have made it easier for him to understand what you are talking about. I have moments I would like to take back when I was less than loving to my son. He is almost 15 now and is a wonderful human being… Read more »

JoAnne
Guest
JoAnne

It’s funny that you posted this article. I just encountered a situation last night where I had this same struggle with myself. I was waiting outside of a restaurant for a take-out order and witnessed a mother pull in and park in front of the restaurant. She then proceeded to get out and lock the car. That is when I noticed that she left a small (2 or so) child in the backseat in a carseat with the window cracked while she went in to the restaurant. There was no one else in the car with the child. I was… Read more »

Ana
Guest
Ana

Good for you! We need to stand up for these helpless kids, hopefully CPS got involved and made her go through parenting classes!

Colleen
Guest
Colleen

Wow, timely. I was just having a discussion about a parent that I have witnessed over the course of several years having different kids that do sports together. Thing is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids are abused at home, and there are a LOT of us who have seen the shoving and heard the yelling first hand.She’s mean as a snake and doesn’t care who sees it. She reminds me very much of my best friend’s mom and only years later did I learn they were all abused, mostly mentally, and that the threat was always that they… Read more »

Billie
Guest
Billie

What a great post! I commend you for saying something to this guy and am so happy that he obviously took it to heart by changing his behavior. I had a similar situation with the head coach of my son’s baseball team. Luckily, the guy is pretty laid back with other parents and as the team mom, I felt like I was the one that needed to stand up and say something. I don’t think he went to the lengths that your guy did, but he was always much much harder on his own son than the rest of the… Read more »

Jennifer
Guest
Jennifer

I think these types of situations are (mostly) all hard.  I guess I don’t feel that the coaches behavior was abusive, and what makes this type of stuff hard, is that everyone is different.  You may treat one kid that way and when he’s thirty, he may thank you for it because that’s what made him strive to succeed.  That’s why he became good at something.  But another child, with a different personality, being treated that way could grow up resentful and angry.  Maybe it is the parents job (I believe it is) to try to figure out which kinds… Read more »

Karate Mom
Guest

Just yesterday,  I was standing in a long line with my daughter, waiting for an event to start. Behind me were two young-ish looking moms – mid-20’s, maybe? – and their kids who looked to be about 6 or 7. Anyway, one little girl stepped on her mom’s foot and the mom yelled out in pain, then proceeded to say, to the girl, “G**Da** you, you little bi***!” My jaw literally dropped open! I wanted SO BADLY to say something, but I honestly figured that if she was willing to talk to her daughter that way, there was no telling… Read more »

edj
Guest

THis is so tough! There are so many reasons not to get involved, and so many reasons TO get involved. I admire you for being wiling to speak to that father, and to take the yelling he gave you, to help his son. I don’t often have that kind of courage myself. As for moms in grocery stores, I tend to assume it’s a rough day and not assume it’s typical behaviour. However. As someone pointed out, if they do that in public what goes on in private? I have had my share of bad parenting moments, but they’ve never… Read more »

Kathi
Guest
Kathi

Great article, Chris. Bravo for you for standing up for that kid. JoAnne, just wanted to say that you did ABSOLUTELY the right thing by calling the police when the woman left her young child in the car. I have a friend whose young son died this way; he was 3, watching a DVD when they pulled into the driveway. He wanted to finish the movie, so they left him in the car while they unloaded the groceries. When they returned (less than 5 minutes later), he had tried to unbuckle himself, and had become strangled in the straps of… Read more »

Jillian
Guest
Jillian

I parked my car once on my way to the beach. It was crowded and there was a long walk on the side of a busy road to get to the enterance. While walking, I saw a little kid in front of me, like 5 or 6, walking alone and not ONE adult in view. (Road curved ahead to enterence) When I got closer, he walked off to the side and slumped against a pole and started crying. I was so upset that his parents weren’t around, so I walked up and asked what was wrong and convinced him to… Read more »

Natalie
Guest

I think you definitely demonstrated that you can intervene with positive results if it’s handled the right way. Yes, it was horrible the way he reacted at the time, but to see the change in his behavior after the fact is great. We had a similar situation on our older son’s ice hockey team. Dad at the glass screaming stuff at his son. My husband worked in the penalty box and when “Jimmy,” who is a sweet, sweet kid, came into the box on a penalty,he cried and said, “My dad hates me!” It was awful. My husband spoke to… Read more »

kembrel way
Guest

dont ever be maen to your kids